June 6, 2014

Research in 3D printing innovation

Frank Piller (photo by Joel West)
On Tuesday, Frank Piller and I hosted a successful workshop on 3D printing at RWTH Aachen. About 30 people attended the workshop: half from RWTH Aachen, the rest from other academic venues and a few from industry.

In many ways, 3D printing research reminds me of open source software research in 2001 or 2002. Frank says there is an explosion of research on 3D printing (i.e. more like OSS in 2005): I'm guessing this is concentrated in Europe because I’m not seeing it in the US. (But then, some of the early OSS research was phenomenon-based, which tends not to count much in U.S. business schools).

We had a deep dive into the science with Reinhart Poprawe, who's both managing director of the Fraunhofer-Institut für Lasertechnik ILT and a professor at RWTH Aachen. With the rise of RepRap, MakerBot and other consumer technologies, most of us are familiar with the plastic (mostly FDM) 3D printing, but his focus is the high-quality, high-speed production of metal parts for industrial uses — which are the future of 3D printing as a manufacturing technique.

Joel West (photo by Frank Piller)
As an economic historian, I gave an overview of the first 30 years of 3D printing, outlining the path from the industrial prototyping companies of the 1980s (notably 3D Systems and Stratasys) through to the dozens of consumer-focused startups of this century. I noted three trends fueling the latter movement: the “maker” movement, open design communities and the expiration of a key patent. (Alas, I gave the talk in casual clothes, without benefit of the suitcase that AirBerlin delivered 24 hours after I arrived in Aachen.)

The RWTH Aachen business school (Frank) and the Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing (Simon Ford) summarized their respective research agendas. Not surprisingly, Frank’s group is interested in mass customization while Cambridge is using UK money “to examine the reality and the potential of digital fabrication for the UK economy.”

Thierry Rayna described how 3D printing is changing business model innovation, while Letizia Mortara talked about classifying 73 different maker spaces into 13 categories. Christian Weller of RWTH described experiments of allowing consumers to customize products and how they felt about their willingness to pay.

In our debrief, I noted the need to build a community of researchers that (as with the early days of OSS) read and build upon each other’s work. We don’t (or won’t) have a management journal, but there are several conferences. The best is Frank's track on “Open Innovation and Additive Manufacturing” at the annual (von Hippel) Open and User Innovation Conference (where I hope to present). In June 2016, the Cambridge IfM group will be hosting the R&D Management Conference, so that’s another natural fit.

European OI researchers have also been fond of the annual ISPIM conference: the program for next week’s conference in Dublin mentions “open innovation,” including a plenary session on OI led by Wim Vanhaverbeke and a talk by Wim on the forthcoming New Frontiers in Open Innovation (Oxford, 2014). While 3D printing and additive manufacturing are nowhere mentioned at this year’s conference, there’s always next year.

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